Getting to “da” with the Russians

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images A brief word on Condi and Bob’s Moscow trip. There’s a feeling in Washington that the window of options toward Iran has narrowed considerably in recent months. In March, Foreign Affairs published a widely-read piece by Ray Takeyh called “Time for Détente with Iran.” Seven months later, it’s hard to imagine Takeyh’s ...

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598695_071011_russia_05.jpg

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

A brief word on Condi and Bob's Moscow trip.

There's a feeling in Washington that the window of options toward Iran has narrowed considerably in recent months. In March, Foreign Affairs published a widely-read piece by Ray Takeyh called "Time for Détente with Iran." Seven months later, it's hard to imagine Takeyh's argument for rapprochement gaining much currency at the White House, whatever its theoretical merits. Military officials in Baghdad have been complaining for months that the "Qods Force" of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is backing Shiite militias and supplying them with fancy IEDs. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker says he has gotten nowhere in his (very limited) discussions with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad. Presidential candidates and congresspeople have been falling all over themselves to condemn Iran, and the Senate even passed, with White House encouragement, an amendment branding the entire Revolutionary Guard as a "foreign terrorist organization".

DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

A brief word on Condi and Bob’s Moscow trip.

There’s a feeling in Washington that the window of options toward Iran has narrowed considerably in recent months. In March, Foreign Affairs published a widely-read piece by Ray Takeyh called “Time for Détente with Iran.” Seven months later, it’s hard to imagine Takeyh’s argument for rapprochement gaining much currency at the White House, whatever its theoretical merits. Military officials in Baghdad have been complaining for months that the “Qods Force” of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is backing Shiite militias and supplying them with fancy IEDs. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker says he has gotten nowhere in his (very limited) discussions with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad. Presidential candidates and congresspeople have been falling all over themselves to condemn Iran, and the Senate even passed, with White House encouragement, an amendment branding the entire Revolutionary Guard as a “foreign terrorist organization”.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that bombs will be dropping on Tehran and Esfahan any time soon, however. As Michael Abramowitz reports for the Washington Post, Bush administration officials are trying to downplay rampant chatter on this issue: 

U.S. officials have also been trying to play down speculation in the news media and among liberal blogs that Bush is preparing for airstrikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, emphasizing that their focus for the moment is diplomacy.

(There’s an important distinction between airstrikes on the nukes and punitive strikes on Qods Force facilities across the border, but that’s another topic.) What does this have to do with Russia, you ask?

Let’s look again at that last word in the quote above: “diplomacy”. Most analysts would concede that a “grand bargain” with Tehran is not in the offing, because a comprehensive deal linking all issues of mutual concern would require an unlikely paradigm shift in both Washington and Tehran. What’s more, the Iranians have rejected past proposals that an outside entity supply them with nuclear fuel for energy, not bombs. Decades of isolation have taught the Iranians to rely only on themselves, so it would take an enormous effort to get them to agree to such a thing. Plus, the Iranians seem confident they already have the knowledge to master uranium enrichment, if not yet the capability. They have said, moreover, that their nuclear program is now a technical and legal matter for the IAEA, not a political issue. Those arguing for grand bargain-style solutions to the Iran problem, then, are probably wasting their breath.

At this point, “diplomacy,” for this U.S. administration, means lining up support for a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, or failing that, sanctions through the major EU powers, Japan, and a few other U.S. allies. But as Abramowitz’s article makes clear, the price for Russia’s support at the Security Council may well be the U.S. abandoning its quest for missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, and maybe even new international arms control and nuclear nonproliferation treaties. If the Bush folks are truly serious about preventing the mullahs from getting the bomb, they may well have to pay Putin’s fee. “Show me the money,” Putin is saying.

Of course, there is no guarantee that getting Russia’s support will ensure success with Iran. During the 1980s, Iran resisted sanctions and international isolation at a time when oil prices were much lower. It doesn’t seem likely Iran’s hardline leaders would buckle now, with oil hovering around $80 a barrel. The good news is: There’s still plenty of time. A new U.S. administration will probably have a window of opportunity to pursue genuine diplomacy with Tehran, and Ahmadinejad may well be gone by then. Let’s hope the Bush administration or the Israelis don’t pursue the military option before then.

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